The jeep halted gradually. The forest guard had obviously spotted something. Traversing through the jungles of Bandhavgarh, our usually-weary senses had already been alighted. There were fresh pug marks of a young tiger across the road. The forest guard got down to inspect. The marks were less than five minutes old, he told us. We had been in the forest twice and had begun learning to decipher the calls of nature. Or, so we thought. That afternoon, on our third trip into Bandhavgarh, it was perhaps our sense of exhultation that made us bold enough to lie in wait of a glimpse of the royal beast.
Forests have always been extremely riveting experiences that I could live and re-live over and over again for a million times. So, it was only natural to have visited as many of them as possible. From the calm and serene ‘Madhai’ in the Satpura, the thoroughly happening ‘Kanha,’ to the eponymous forests of ‘Gir,’ they all hold a greater kind of magic within them. The labyrinthine forests and their eternal laws that all forest dwellers have followed stringently through centuries compel you to review your existence and eventually lose the sense that one is important in the larger scheme of life. The laws that have ruled and guided all life through centuries have also been known to turn fierce when violated. And, that perhaps, is just how the nature has survived and sustained itself through ages.
Aware, alert and excited about the glimpse, we looked around for any tell-tale signs. Grass had stirred, a few meters to our left, a flock of Indian Mynah rose from the ground to fly away and a buck ran away to join it’s herd. Then, everything had grown still as swiftly as it had all moved. The tiger, perhaps, had gone. A little disappointed, we started exploring other creatures of the forest. An Ibis here, a sambhar there; a pair of alligators basking in the sun and a Green Whip coiled around a dead tree trunk. The fauna of Bandhavgarh was as intriguing as it was enrapturing.
We had just crossed a nallah, when the ranger asked us all to listen carefully. We tried, except it was all stark silent. And then gradually, we realised, forests are rarely stark silent. There is always the chirping of the birds, barking of the deer or the chatter of the monkeys. But, here we were, in the forest where there was such rich fauna only minutes ago and suddenly, it was as silent as a grave.
In the chill of the winters, it was now growing dark. We’d been in the jungle for almost two-and-a-half hours. The park was to close for the day in thirty minutes. We thought it best to head out and make another attempt for the big cat early next day. It wasn’t much further before we spotted fresh pug marks again on the side of the road. This time, they went quite some distance before making a crossing and disappearing onto the hills on the other side of the road. The driver and the ranger both, declared them to be of the same cat as before. Having been evaded by a tiger for almost three hours, it seemed too hard a luck to miss so closely. As the jeep moved on, we were lost in the panorama that surrounded us. With mountains on one side and a view of the jungle on the other, softly lit in the dim orange dusk, the beauty around us was mesmerizing.
The ranger was now facing us, revealing that there was a big cat somewhere near-by. He could feel the presence and that all the tell-tale signs were there. At first, we thought he was only building up excitement for the sake of it. Then, it gradually dawned upon us that perhaps, there could be an ounce of truth in his words. The signs had been there all along; the sudden hither-tither movements and the ensuing stark silence, the fresh marks of the same young tiger thrice in a row. The tiger had been not evading us, but perhaps silently keeping an eye and following us. If what he said was true, then in accordance with the last marks, the tiger was somewhere up on the hills on one side of the road and thus, at an immeasurable advantage. Excitement surged up like a storm, except it was this once, also accompanied by thrill, adrenaline and a fear of power. The jeep had not halted, so perhaps the tiger was still moving with us. None of us could locate it, but the ranger could still feel the presence. Gripped with fear and equal thrill, every minute seemed to stretch infinitely. The wait for the royal beast was now filled with anticipation. Any moment, it would show itself or worse, attack.
Next moment, we heard a loud snap, a little sputter here, a little there and the jeep came to an abrupt halt. There was a frantic trial to rev up the engine; once and then again. Perhaps once more, but the engine arrogantly refused to budge. We were now facing a hidden stalking tiger, a blown-up spark plug and a broken axle. Things had taken a different turn. Everything was replaced by fear and an ironical hope of not being awarded with the much-awaited glimpse of the great beast. We weren’t very far from the exit, but were far enough to be unable to save ourselves. Any kind of help from outside would take at least twenty minutes to reach us, which was time enough for us to be shred to pieces and very well digested with a burp. In that very moment, the magnificence of the greater self came into being. The truth of the universe had manifested and the existence of self had been proven to be trivial in the greater scheme of things. That we were nothing but puppets in the scheme of the universe, was proven all over again.
Help had eventually arrived some time later, we’d heard a growl before that and had also been given a glimpse of the Great Beast of Bandhavgarh. It had been following us through it’s terrain, patiently observing our doings, our zeal, our excitement and apprehension. Having left the forests as humans eons ago, it was now it’s home and we were the unwanted guests into it’s kingdom, disturbing the peace of it’s home and it had been patient enough throughout our stay. The sight of the tiger, as we were exiting the forest was nothing less than enchanting. The thrill, anticipation, the fear had finally given way to the most magnificent sight ever. Standing regally at the edge of it’s territory, eyes glaring in the dimming light, boring into our jeep, the cat was huge. For a young cub, it’s size was overpowering, it’s roar deafening and in the safety of our egress, we did try to meet it’s eye, to pretend we were brave, but in it’s prowl and stand, it had already proven that it was him, that was and will remain the alpha.